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Avid Life Media: ACTION!

And insiders' look into making a commercial.

The lights, cameras, and many, many actions that go into even a 30 second commercial would overwhelm anyone without the passion for the entire process. There have even been lobbies for credit rolls after commercials because of the precise expertise and countless hours of work that go into filming these short pieces of art. One might liken the process to an Olympic runner taking years to gear up for a race which is over in ten seconds.

Pre Production of a Commercial

The 8 to 12 hours of actual shooting would mean nothing without the months of work before the first camera ever rolls. Pre production of a commercial could be said to start with script production, but even those writers have a prerequisite -- the marketing department.

When a product or service is ready for advertisement, before the writers ever put pen to paper, opinions are gathered from the target audience through focus groups and demographic and psychographic research. These findings are what direct the script writing process. If a company does not have writers in house, or even if it does, this is where the first hang ups can occur. Commercial writers compete to get their ideas on the air, and this competition is sometimes not in the best interests of the commercial. Often, egos clash when marketing meets writing. However, when a script finally gets put together, the crew is ready to be assembled.

To get a director and producer with proper chemistry is sometimes hard work. Most commercials benefit from having a director with no vision, so that he doesn't get in the way of the marketing objective. And most directors view commercial work as little more than a rent paying enterprise. So to get a good director who is inclined to set aside his ego for the good of the overall message can be quite an ordeal for a company.

Once the crew is assembled, a commercial is technically ready to shoot, but we still need the talent. Now the company must organize with a casting director to get the right actors for the job. Actors view all but the largest of corporations' commercials with the same disdain as the director, so quite often auditions go longer than planned. With the actors, crew and script finally in place, it is time to shoot the commercial.

Production of a Commercial

On shoot day, the first thing that can inhibit a process is a forgotten permit or permission. Long shoots, especially in or near residential areas or public locales, have often drawn unwanted attention, which compel authorities to shut it down. Then there are issues of continuity which sometimes can not be fixed, and the entire commercial must be reshot. Because of this, the company must take the time to review the bureaucracy of the shoot on shoot day.

Make up is usually done while the lights are being set up, but long takes can require reapplication because lights on a shoot are especially bright and hot. Sweat causes nasty reflections on camera, so many times the process must be interrupted to reapply make up. This time is often not taken into account at the beginning of many shoots.

Coordinating the many pieces of production, from keeping the boom mics out of the shot to working the correct angles for shot requires many more takes than you might think. The slightest error by any one person in the chain can ruin a take, and perfection from many people requires a synergy that usually takes a few hours to synthesize.

Post Production of a Commercial

After all takes have been shot and run by the marketing department and up the chain of command to make sure that all advertising objectives and issues of company branding have been resolved, the commercial goes to the editing department. The best takes are spliced into a recognizable plot-line, the fat is cut, and music, voice overs, and digital effects are added. Many mistakes can be fixed in this stage, although it is not preferred.

Once a commercial is put together in final form, it is usually run past the marketing department again and through another round of research and focus groups. Sometimes, if the commercial is not viewed positively, another one must be reshot or re-edited from the cutting room floor.

Though I have tried to hit all the major points in making a commercial, this is just a summary of the process. Many more details separate the Super Bowl masterpieces from the less professional things you may see on local television. However, you hopefully have an outline of the immense amount of work and precision it takes to make a commercial.


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